‘I’d Keep It Low’: The Secret Life of a Super-Recon | Science

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AAs a child, Yenny Seo often surprised her mother by pointing to a stranger in the grocery store, noting that it was the same person she had passed on the street a few weeks earlier. Similarly, when they watched a movie together, Seo often recognized “extras” who appeared fleetingly in other movies.

Her mother never thought it was “something special,” Seo says, and just assumed she had a particularly observant daughter.

Seo also didn’t know that others didn’t share her love of the private game she played, where she would spot someone on a bus or on the street, then flip through the vast catalog of faces she kept in her head, trying to place where she had seen them before. “It’s always been a lot of fun for me,” she says. “Especially as a child. I remember really enjoying looking at different faces.

Seo recalls that in college she would meet people in a new class “and I would visually remember the type of photos I saw them in.” Photography: Alana Holmberg/Oculi for The Guardian

It wasn’t until she got older and started using social media that Seo became aware of her skills. “I would start a new class in college or meet people at social gatherings and visually remember the type of photos I had seen them in. I would already know them so well and I would know it in my head: ‘Oh, you’re that person’s brother, or you used to date so-and-so,'” she says.

“But I also knew it would be really scary if I said it out loud, so I would keep it quiet and just say, ‘Oh, nice to meet you. “”

Once, when she worked part-time at a clothing store when she was in college, Seo was right to show off her skills. Staff saw grainy, hard-to-decipher CCTV footage of a habitual shoplifter; The next time this person entered the store, Seo immediately recognized them and alerted the security guard. “I knew I had to have some kind of skill, but I still didn’t think it was anything special, because I’ve had so many cases like that happen.”

Photos from Jenny Seo's photo booth
Only 1-2% of the population are classified as super-recognizers Photography: Alana Holmberg/Oculi for The Guardian

Until the early 2000s, little scientific attention was paid to the question of whether all humans possessed the same ability to recognize faces. According to Dr David White, now a senior researcher at the Face Research Lab at the University of New South Wales (UNSW), “I think people intuitively believe that the way they see the world is the same of others. And I think that the scientists also had this intuition.

White first became interested in the field by studying a rare condition called prosopagnosia – when brain damage prevents a person from recognizing faces. He was intrigued that even if people with the disease couldn’t recognize the face of a loved one, they could still recognize other objects – proof, he says, that our brains are organized to perform different tasks, “like an application on your smartphone”. .

Along with other researchers, White began examining people without brain damage, finding that there is “tremendous variation” in facial recognition ability. At the very top of the performance scale, a cohort of only 1-2% of the population are “super-recognizers” – people who can memorize and recall unfamiliar faces, even after the briefest glimpse.

Seo sitting in a restaurant
Out of more than 100,000 people tested in an online tool to unearth the best super-recognizers in the world, Seo ranked in the top 50. Photography: Alana Holmberg/Oculi for The Guardian

The underlying cause is still not entirely clear – it is a new field, with only about 20 scientific papers studying super-recognizers. However, genetics are suspected to play a role as identical twins exhibit similar performance, and cortical thickness – the amount of neurons – in the part of the brain that supports facial recognition has been shown to be a predictor. of higher capacity.

Recently, White conducted an experiment where he used eye-tracking technology to study how super-recognizers look at faces, finding that they “extend their gaze more around the face, suggesting they could paint a picture more elaborate face in their mind’s eye”.

Because it’s such a rare phenomenon, in 2017 White and his colleagues at UNSW designed a publicly accessible website. screening tool to try to unearth the best super-recognizers in the world. Seo, then in her twenties, gave it a shot – and her score was so high that White invited her to come to Sydney for further testing.

With over 100,000 people now tested, Seo still ranks in the top 50.

Seo surrounded by people on a busy street
The use of face masks in the Covid pandemic has given Seo a fun challenge – and most of the time she can still recognize a person if they’re wearing one, she says. Photography: Alana Holmberg/Oculi for The Guardian

Over the past decade, security and law enforcement agencies around the world have begun recruiting people with superior facial recognition capabilities. London’s Metropolitan Police have a task force examining CCTV footage from crime scenes – it was used in the investigation into the poisoning of a former Russian spy with the nerve agent Novichok in Salisbury – and Several years ago, Queensland Police began identifying super-scouts in their ranks. A proliferation of private agencies has also sprung up, offering the services of super recognitions.

Seo eyes closed in a photo booth
Seo’s diagnosis made her realize that she was simply wired differently. Photography: Alana Holmberg/Oculi for The Guardian

Seo has no interest in repeating her “one crime-fighting moment” from her college days — she’s content with her job as a technician in a pathology lab. She still enjoys looking at faces – using face masks during the pandemic provides a fun challenge. Most of the time, she can still recognize a person even if they’re wearing one – and the diagnosis has given her “confidence in my abilities”.

“It made me realize: oh yeah, it’s not crazy – I had to be right all the time. It’s not that I’m scary, but my brain is just wired that way.

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